Aristide's Tinderbox

Haitian Militants Losing Faith in President’s Promise of Reform

However shakily, Aristide remains in control; he was re-elected in November 2000 with little opposition. That would have come from the Convergence Démocratique coalition, a motley group of social democrats and ex-authoritarian functionaries with scant public support and pronounced distaste for the Haitian masses. But Convergence members contended the parliamentary elections held earlier were tabulated to favor Aristide's Lavalas party, so they sat out the presidential round.

The Organization of American States has been attempting to broker a deal ever since. Following a mysterious attack on the National Palace by nearly two dozen gunmen last December 17, thousands of armed Aristide partisans, including the youth of Cite Soleil, took to the streets, burning down headquarters and private homes affiliated with the Convergence and, in their words, "defending our palace and defending our president."

Accusations of electoral rigging from Convergence have led to the suspension of $500 million of desperately needed international aid. The group is further demanding that the government not only pay reparations but also disarm militant government supporters. In the meantime, capital residents witness daily scenes of armed convoys of Lavalas officials—who have been continually embroiled in scandal—speeding by in bulletproof SUVs as street children wash their faces in puddles of rainwater.

Pierre Fabienne: Diplomatic efforts brought little reward.
photo: Chantal Regnault
Pierre Fabienne: Diplomatic efforts brought little reward.

Some in the slums say they're not ready to abandon faith in their president's promise of reform. "We cannot forget what Aristide has been for us, and we will always be on his side when we see things being done," says Wily Sauvenur, a studious, bearded young man. Sauvenur (not his real name) is carrying a manila envelope containing the freshly printed stationery of a new political movement, the Organizasyon Revolisyone Chalo Jaklen, named after a murdered pro-democracy activist and founded the day militants stormed the National Palace. "But we will not support this or any government when we see nothing being done, and right now we see him sitting with the gwo manje—"high-living political types"—and living like them. Now is not like the days of the coup d'état. We're armed and we're very determined to change this country and they know that, and they will have to deal with us."

Haiti's poor have always had to fight. "In 1991, when the military made Aristide go and began killing our families, we were 10, 12—we were small kids," says Labanier, another self-described political activist. "We are not militants out of the blue. Our fathers and mothers were already militants, against Duvalier, against the military, because it was always bad here and people here always cling onto the dream that things can change."

The chimere, as the largely male and jobless contingent of Haitian society is often called, have been used as a political tool in Haiti for many years. Government and opposition leaders alike draw on the clannish—but not necessarily criminal—gang culture powered by the very real threats young men face in the slums.

"My mother died in '91 when FRAPH came and killed her in Cite Soleil, then they kidnapped my father in 1994 and killed him, too," says Pierre Fabienne, who rallied government partisans on the streets after being contacted by Haitian National Police forces in the early morning hours of December 17. "One day I think the people will stand up to defend their rights. If they keep doing this, if Aristide kills me, if he kills Labanier, all the gangs will come out and he will lose his power. We'll have a rache manyok again."

In the surreal landscape that can be Haiti today—pro-bin Laden graffiti scrawled on crumbling walls, former comedians rallying pro-government partisans with apocalyptic anti-foreign rhetoric—the situation of the militants of Cite Soleil and other neighborhoods is perhaps the clearest sign of just how grave things can become. "One day, man, I'd like to be able to give up this politics," says Fabienne, looking down the hill at the shacks and the naked, laughing children. "If not, I'll die and I couldn't do anything for myself."

Fabienne remembers the days of the U.S. invasion that returned Aristide to power. Ten years old then, he became something of a mascot to the visiting American soldiers and the journalists who accompanied them. He shined the boots of General Henry Shelton, commander of the 18th Airborne Corps, "so they looked like mirrors," he says, and one American photographer even bought him some basic photo equipment, which he wore strung around his neck with obvious pride.

"I've done too much work for politics," Fabienne says, though he refuses to give up hope that Haiti can change. "Now, too many people hate me, and they hate what I say. But it's for this I try to help my little son, so we can arrive at a new place."

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